A personal tragedy shows a crisis within the church Priest's suicide opens issue of abuse

September 05, 1993|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Staff Writer Staff writer William F. Zorzi Jr. contributed to this article.

As he sat through a painful hearing in a Towson courtroom two days after Christmas in 1988, the Rev. Thomas W. Smith had a fearful secret.

Father Smith, 64, watched as his former associate pastor, the Rev. Marion F. Helowicz, 43, pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a teen-age boy at St. Stephen Roman Catholic Church in Bradshaw. The defendant's lawyer told the judge that Father Smith had been "aghast" at the charges and "couldn't fathom that this had occurred."

Father Helowicz's disgrace was in the next day's newspaper, his career as a priest shattered. But Father Smith's secret remained intact.

Just three months earlier, Father Smith himself had been accused of the same crime. And like Father Helowicz, he had admitted the abuse, which had occurred more than 20 years earlier. In fact, he acknowledged that he had a number of victims, not just one.

But Father Smith's admission was not in a public courtroom, nor was it reported in the news media. He had confessed privately to archdiocese officials, who sent him for a psychiatric evaluation, accepted his assertion that he had not abused a child in 20 years and kept the matter quiet.

For five more years, the secret was kept. Then, two weeks ago, Father Smith was told of a new allegation of abuse. This time, the archdiocese chose to send him away for evaluation, virtually ensuring that word would leak out.

And Father Smith, a rock-solid paragon of wisdom and virtue in the eyes of his flock in northeast Baltimore County, his public record unblemished in 43 years as a priest, chose not to go. Instead, on Aug. 21, he killed himself in his room in the St. Stephen rectory.

Father Smith is far from the only priest in a similar predicament to take his own life. As the Catholic church comes under increasing public pressure to confront priests suspected of child abuse, a small but growing number have committed suicide rather than live to see their reputations destroyed.

In July, a retired Kentucky priest killed himself after being questioned by a detective about allegations of abuse of boys many years earlier.

A year ago, the chancellor of the Arlington, Va., archdiocese killed himself after a former parishioner confronted him and said he remembered the priest abusing him when he was an altar boy 25 years earlier.

A few months before that, a Catholic priest and teacher in Colorado asphyxiated himself, by running his car in his closed garage, the day after he learned police intended to charge him with sexually assaulting a student.

A 61-year-old priest in Alabama, facing trial on charges of molesting a 12-year-old altar boy, fatally shot himself in 1986, leaving a note that said he preferred to be "a dead memory rather than a living disgrace."

Pattern of cover-up

"As this has become a more and more public issue, and the church has been forced to deal with it more aggressively, we're seeing more suicides, and we will see more," said Elinor Burkette, a Washington journalist and co-author of a new book on child abuse by Catholic priests, "A Gospel of Shame." "I think that argues for the earliest possible intervention."

The cover-up of the abuse admitted by Father Smith in 1988 is characteristic of the church's past reluctance to deal with the issue forthrightly, said Ms. Burkette, who studied hundreds of abuse cases. Such discretion is not necessarily a kindness to the abuser, she said.

"In a certain sense, by not getting [Father Smith] help in 1988, [church officials] made themselves partially morally responsible for his suicide," she said. "He needed help, and instead, they just chose to believe him when he said the abuse had stopped long ago."

Baltimore Archdiocese officials have said they were convinced in 1988 that the abuse by Father Smith had ceased two decades earlier. Believing Father Smith, they did not report the abuse to police, though they prohibited him from working with youth, officials said.

Sign of challenge

The suicides by priests, in the face of a powerful taboo in Christian tradition, are a tragic sign of the challenge the problem of sexual abuse poses to the church.

A. W. Richard Sipe, a former priest and therapist who has written widely on the subject, estimates that approximately 6 percent, or 3,000, of the nation's 50,000 Catholic priests engage in improper sexual contact with minors. Other experts have arrived at roughly similar figures.

In the Baltimore Archdiocese, five priests have been the target of public accusations of sexual abuse in recent years. One source familiar with such cases said at least seven other priests have been identified as abusers by church officials, but dealt with quietly.

Until about 10 years ago, in the rare instances in which sexual abuse by a priest was reported to his archdiocese, it rarely became public, Ms. Burkette said. "They'd go to the bishop, confess and be forgiven. Then they'd be moved to another parish, and the abuse would go on," she said.

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